February 21, 2014
European leaders should not congratulate themselves too heartily for mediating the compromise agreement that, with luck, will end the demonstrations and appalling violence on the streets of Ukraine’s capital Kiev and other major cities.
It is, after all, sins of commission and omission by Brussels that have played a large part in stirring up the political chaos in Ukraine as its people try to decide if their future should be with the European Union (EU) or their old political overlord in the Soviet Union, Russia.
The EU’s first sin is that since Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, it has been confronted with this stark, either-or choice.
Many of the 28 member states, and especially the administrative priesthood in Brussels, have no doubt that the virtues of EU membership are obvious. EU politicians and officials often display an irritating and sometimes destructive assumption that joining their club is the only rational action for neighbouring countries.
All too frequently in Brussels displays little understanding, and often naïve ignorance of the conflicting economic and political pressures felt by countries considering EU membership, particularly those that were part of the Soviet Union.
Ukraine displays these conflicts more intensely than most. Among its 45 million people there is an historic divide between those in the largely agricultural west and those in the industrialized east. The westerners lean towards Europe, while their eastern compatriots look to Moscow and frequently speak Russian rather than Ukrainian.
This demographic divide is echoed in the economy. A third of Ukraine’s total trade in 2012 was with the EU while 29 per cent was with Russia’s Eurasian Customs Union. A quarter of Ukraine’s exports go to the EU and 30 per cent to the Customs Union.
The current crisis in Ukraine was in large part sparked by Brussels’ insistence that the Kiev government of President Viktor Yanukovich choose either the EU or Russia’s Customs Union. In either case, Yanukovich faced disruption at best and dislocation at worst of half his economy.
The matter came to a head last November when Brussels wanted four former Soviet states – Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – to sign Association Agreements, a preliminary step towards EU membership.
Georgia and Moldova signed, but Armenia announced it is joining the Russian Customs Union instead. Ukraine’s Yanukovich prevaricated, saying he needed more time to assess the merits of the deal.
It was this non-decision by Yanukovich that led to the occupation of Kiev’s Independence Square by thousands of protesters and the violent response by the authorities. Scores of people have died both in Kiev and other cities where protesters have occupied government buildings.
As the protests have gathered momentum, their composition has changed. It is no longer correct to portray the political divide as a simple split between pro-European western Ukrainians and pro-Russians in the east. Events have created a more complex reality.
It is therefore highly questionable how much control over the demonstrations is exercised by the three opposition leaders who today signed the agreement with Yanukovich to increase the authority of parliament, form a government of national unity and bring forward presidential elections to later this year.
Radical groups such as Right Sector want Yanukovich’s immediate removal from power and nothing less. The bloodshed on the streets in the last few days has bred its own hatreds and there are now many others for whom the ousting of the President by any means is the top priority and non-negotiable.
Yet Yanukovich’s caution at signing the Association Agreement with the EU is understandable. All Ukraine’s four leaders since independence in 1991 have leaned towards Europe and joining the EU. That includes Yanukovich, even though he is more pro-Russian and EU-sceptical than the others.
His scepticism flows from two main doubts about the EU. One is that while the EU has set Ukraine ambitious targets and conditions for political and economic reform as prerequisites for deepening ties, Brussels has not clearly set out what happens if Kiev does or doesn’t meet the objectives.
The result is that Brussels has given Kiev the impression it is not particularly interested whether Ukraine joins the EU or not. Brussels’ main interest often seems to be keeping Ukraine in limbo and stopping Kiev becoming too attached to Moscow.
European leaders have far less influence in this three-cornered dance between Moscow, Kiev and Brussels than they like to think. Europe is heavily dependent on Russia for energy supplies, especially natural gas, which is piped through Ukraine. Moscow has on several occasions demonstrated its willingness and ability to use its gas exports as a political weapon, either by manipulating the supply or the gas price.
Another reason for Yanukovich’s hesitation about jumping into bed with Brussels is money. Kiev was clear that it expected the same kind of generous development investment from Brussels that the EU offered to other East Bloc countries gaining membership.
Yanukovich once mentioned $220 billion, but EU leaders have been unable to agree among themselves what to offer. In any case, the EU has its own money troubles and lavish offers are not on the table.
Until now, Russia has been willing to bail out the Kiev treasury by buying Ukrainian bonds. But the peace deal mediated by Europe is a setback for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to re-link as much of the old Soviet Union as possible under the banner of the Eurasian Customs Union.
Putin, however, will probably wait until after the closing ceremony on Sunday for the Sochi Olympic Winter Games, just down the Black Sea coast from Ukraine, before playing his next card.
Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014